Cobb County police heard gunfire last Dec. 22 when they arrived at the Tramore Apartments in Austell after answering an emergency call about a home invasion. Then they found three bodies. Herb Pritchard and his fiancee, Lela Alford, apparently died in a lovers' quarrel.
The third victim was Alford's daughter, 28-year-old private investigator Tanya Nooner. Her slaying was almost certainly a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Yet Nooner's death by gun violence was a sad irony, considering her most famous customer and the nature of the case upon which she was working: an anti-gun crusade launched by New York Mayor – and possible independent presidential candidate – Michael Bloomberg. The city's legal machine had hired Nooner to snare Georgia gun sellers whose firearms ended up in the hands of murderers, thugs and thieves in New York.
The investigator's work formed part of the foundation of twin lawsuits the Bloomberg administration has filed against gun dealers, some in New York but most in Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina. Since many of the guns are transported up Interstate 95 from the South to New York, the highway has earned an ominous moniker: "The Iron Pipeline."
At least two of the gun stores have shot back with countersuits – including one shop that was targeted by Nooner, Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna. Adding to the star appeal of the cases, Adventure Outdoors' lawyer in the countersuit is Bob Barr, a former congressman and outspoken civil libertarian.
The venerable "states' rights" debate between the North and South echoes in the duel over New York's use of undercover agents. There's a world of difference in how two regions of the United States view gun ownership. In Georgia and the rest of old Dixie, the right to own and brandish weapons – even the right to fire first when you feel threatened – is sanctified in custom and law. In New York and many other Northern cities, severe restrictions on gun ownership, especially handguns, are equally part of the culture.
"The origin of 90 percent of the guns used in New York crime is out of state," says John Feinblatt, Bloomberg's deputy in charge of gunning for gun dealers. "The truth is that Congress has tied the hands of the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] in enforcing the laws. We had no choice but to raise our voices about dealers who make illegal gun sales resulting in guns reaching the streets of New York City."
Barr counters that his client, Adventure Outdoors, has a long record of cooperating with the ATF – even turning in suspect gun buyers – and he derides Bloomberg's assault as "political grandstanding."
"This is primarily a matter of fundamental fairness," Barr says. "What right do New York officials have to come here and dictate how my client does his business?"
Fair or not, so far Bloomberg is the only one to put points on the board. Twelve of the 27 gun dealers sued by New York – and four of eight in Georgia – have settled with the city, essentially agreeing to upgrade their procedures for checking gun purchasers. Even Barr concedes the settlements are "problematic."
On the other hand, Bloomberg failed in an effort to enlist the U.S. Justice Department in his cause. The mayor had hoped his civil lawsuits would be augmented by federal criminal charges. In February, however, the department responded that the gun sales in question "do not rise to a level that would support a criminal prosecution." Moreover, Michael Battle, director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, warned Feinblatt in a letter of "potential legal liabilities ... when persons outside of law enforcement undertake actions typically reserved for law enforcement agents."
Battle even cautioned that "civilian efforts can unintentionally interrupt or jeopardize ongoing criminal investigations."
In a fracas that pits gun dealers, who view themselves as legitimate businessmen, against a powerful national politician, there's no shortage of vitriol. Barr denounces "rogue mayors" – Bloomberg and 200 others, including Atlanta's Shirley Franklin, who back New York's anti-gun initiatives. Bloomberg has called the gun dealers the city is suing "the worst of the worst," "a scourge on our society" and "bad apples."
On April 8, 2006, Tanya Nooner was operating undercover when she visited Adventure Outdoors on South Cobb Drive. It's not just a shop. It's a megastore that dispenses almost 500 guns a month -- more than 94,000 firearms over the last three decades -- to the well-armed citizenry of North Georgia. And, Bloomberg's lawyers argue, the store was peddling firearms to a few folks who shouldn't own guns, which is why Nooner was posing as a buyer shopping for a Glock 26 handgun.
Nooner attempted to make what in the gun trade is dubbed a "straw" purchase. That happens when someone who may be ineligible to own a gun uses another person to buy it. Straw purchases are a violation of federal law. Much of the 20 minutes' worth of paperwork involved in buying a gun is intended not only to weed out crooks and crazies, but also to scuttle sales to would-be buyers who intend to flip the guns to folks who have lost the right to be armed.
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